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Why are opera singers fat?

Asked by Kelly Reed of Indianapolis, Indiana

There are several theories attempting to explain why opera singers are often pleasingly plump. One holds that a large amount of fatty tissue surrounding the voice box (larynx) increases its resonance capability and thus produces a more pleasing sound. The amount of this fatty tissue varies from singer to singer. It is almost impossible to have a great deal of fatty tissue around the voice box without carrying a great deal of fatty tissue elsewhere on the body.

A second theory holds that opera singers need a far more powerful diaphragm than normal to be able to project their voice above the sound of a large orchestra in a large opera house. A large chest cavity and good control of the lungs will provide a suitable mass to help drive the diaphragm to some extent. A large body mass and a large body frame to support it help even more, so there is a huge advantage in being huge.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when opera was an expanding medium, successive generations of opera producers sought larger and more dramatic effects in operas, larger audiences, and larger theatres. Being human, singers could not be re-engineered, so better vocal techniques were developed to better cope with this steady rise in size and volume - in all things.

Consistent with this, it was recognised that there was an advantage in having a large chest, rib cage, neck, mouth, everything. The desire for larger singers was not the only change. New technology for wind instruments and the reconstruction of older baroque string instruments also came about as the result of opera innovations.

A third theory comes from Dr Peter Osin of the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. Dr. Osin argues that opera singers "may be more predisposed to put on weight because exertions in the lungs act as a trigger for their appetite". He adds that "the mechanism of singing encourages the lung cells to release chemicals including leptin, a protein made by the body's fat cells that is involved in the regulation of appetite".

A fourth theory holds that the act of opera singing itself expands the body, particularly the rib cage. After years of singing, the opera singer’s body may look fat, perhaps fatter than it really is. This is the implication of Australian research by Dr CW Thorpe and three colleagues from the National Voice Centre at the University of Sydney and published in the Journal of Voice 2001.

No doubt other theories will emerge. None can so far claim to be proven. As they say: "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings".

Interesting facts

  • There are exceptions to the rule that opera singers are fat. Jose Carreras, one of the most famous tenors of the last 50 years, is only 170 centimeters tall (5 feet six inches) and is rather average in body mass.
  • In 2004, opera singer Deborah Voigt was dismissed from a Royal Opera House production in London because she was too fat.
  • Many opera devotees fondly refer to "Madame Butterfly", one of the most famous operas and diva roles, as "Madame Butterball".
  • The phrase, "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings", has been attributed to, among others, US sportscaster Dan Cook, US basketball coach Dick Motta, US baseball player Yogi Berra, US author Damon Runyon, and that ageless savant (no nationality) Anonymous.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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